Exam time is nearly here, and seeing the facts and figures surrounding student’s levels of exam stress, general anxiety and depression reported in the media can make for worrying reading. The Sunday Times recently published a hard-hitting article entitled “Schools call in therapists as stress soars among pupils.”
And it’s not just The Sunday Times.
The Huffington Post approached 14 UK Universities, and found some alarming statistics. Cardiff University, for example, provided mental health help for 686 students in 2006/7, but this had skyrocketed to 1,131 students in 2011/12. The cost to the University of providing this treatment was estimated by CU at a staggering £160,000. Not one of the Universities listed had seen a decrease in the number of students affected, indeed, taking all the Universities into account, the number had increased from 10,866 in 2006/7 to 17,223 in 2011/2012, a rise of over 45%.
Higher education students are not the only ones who are buckling under the pressure.
A study of 1,000 13-18 year olds conducted for The Sleep Council found that 83% of teenagers admit to worrying and becoming anxious about exams, with 18% having difficulty falling asleep, 28% waking often at night and a further 28% reporting early waking. In the month leading up to an exam, the number of teenagers who get between 5-6 hours a night doubles, from 10% to 20%. The study also found that 56% of those surveyed admitted to ‘cramming’ all their revision into one night, at the expense of sleep. The most common methods of staying awake during these mammoth sessions was listening to music (52%), consuming chocolate (34%) and drinking energy/caffeine drinks was a method used by 26%. Almost half (46%) also admitted to eating/snacking more than usual.
As shown above, this is a growing problem, and needs to be addressed, urgently. Some schools are proactively introducing various ‘wellness’ techniques to their students in the run up to exam time, but it really is a drop in the ocean, as these enlightened schools are few and far between.
Gareth Wait, a clinical hypnotherapist and psychotherapist says, “These statistics are really quite disturbing, but, given the pressure put on schools to perform well in league tables and the like, the students feel this pressure pushing down on them.” He continues, “Especially at exam time, when the school will reiterate, over and over, the vital importance of a good grade, and the necessity of high-quality revision. This approach is not at all useful in ensuring the psychological well-being of the young people at the sharp end.”
Exams are just as important now as they’ve always been, but the pressure to perform would appear to be much greater than ever before, and seems to be increasing.
Gareth says, “As a parent of two teenagers myself, I have seen first-hand the burden placed on the students, particularly on the run-up to exams. I also see young clients who just can’t take the pressure any more, and need help to relax and gain perspective. This ethos of high achievement that the schools are having pushed on them from local education authorities seems to be backfiring spectacularly – students placed under this amount of stress will actually perform worse when the exams come around. Being tired, stressed, irritable and scared is not the best place to be during an exam!”
So, is there a solution? Probably not for all pupils in the short-term. A long-term rethink has to take place, and student’s psychological well-being must be a top priority. At the moment, it seems that it is left up to parents (or the students themselves) to seek out help. There are some places of learning that provide some form of counselling, but even that is usually outsourced, but these are rare.
Currently, sufferers often seek private therapy, but that relies on being willing or able to find a reputable, qualified therapist. Schools who bring the therapies on-campus, in group sessions or one-to-one, give us a glimpse of what is needed. Introducing therapy into schools is a new, but growing idea, and the early results show great promise.